Church Services Remember Victims in East Harlem Blast

As workers tried to clear the last of the rubble that once was two Manhattan apartment buildings, a pair of congregations gathered to mourn Sunday — one for its lost church and one for two members who lost their lives in the massive explosion.

At Bethel Gospel Assembly, tears mixed with the sounds of gospel music as the church remembered Griselde Camacho and Carmen Tanco, two of the eight people killed in the massive East Harlem explosion that leveled a pair of five-story buildings on Wednesday.

"We feel the void," said Michelle Robinson, the church's business administrator. "Both women were very active members."

Tanco often served as an usher at services and would greet her fellow congregants at the door, Robinson said.

"We are a family and we're all just missing the big hugs she used to give," she said.

Mayor de Blasio said the women "were examples to all of us" because of the faith and spirit they demonstrated. He spoke at a podium with a screen above him displaying photos of the women.

"We will not let you fall," de Blasio said, speaking at a podium with a screen above him displaying photos of the women. "We are all a family in the end."

His wife, Chirlane McCray, told the crowd about the launch of a fundraising drive to help those affected by the explosion. The money would support a relief plan that would help cover funeral costs along with rent and household expenses. The plan also includes counseling and outreach to immigrant communities.

De Blasio also visited the house of worship where members of the Spanish Christian Church, which had been on the first floor of one of the destroyed buildings. On Saturday, a crew at the blast site found a large Bible in the rubble and returned it to the church's pastor.

After the three-hour service at the Church of God a few blocks from the blast site, several dozen members of the destroyed church, including young families with children, fell into each other's arms amid tears and faint smiles.

For some, it was the first encounter since Wednesday's catastrophe.

"We don't know where we will worship, we don't know what we'll do," said Carmen Vargas Rosa, who led a meeting of Spanish Christian Church members.

At the scene of the explosion on Park Avenue at 116th Street, there were signs the initial cleanup was ending while the investigation into the cause of the blast could begin.

The blast erupted about 15 minutes after someone from a neighboring building reported smelling gas, authorities said. The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates pipeline accidents, said Friday that underground tests conducted in the hours after the explosion registered high concentrations of natural gas.

Arson detectives and fire marshals have been waiting to enter the basements to examine meters, check pipes and inspect any possible ignition sources, such as light switches, that might have caused the blast.

Truckloads of scattered material will be sifted for any traces of human remains that might not have been found at the site, FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said. Although the bodies of all eight people reported missing have been recovered, the rescue operation was continuing in case others may be buried beneath the rubble, he said.

More than 60 people were injured in the explosion, and more than 100 others were displaced.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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